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Exhibition review: John Nixon – Four Decades, Five Hundred Prints, Geelong Gallery

An expansive collection of prints by John Nixon reveals his philosophy about blurring the boundaries between art and life.
‘John Nixon—Four Decades, Five Hundred Prints’ installation view at Geelong Gallery. Photo: ArtsHub. Exhibition space with white wall and timber floor, filled with prints and works on paper displayed on wooden tables.

It may be surprising to find that what runs most strongly through John Nixon – Four Decades, Five Hundred Prints for this reviewer is the concept of time. It takes and it gives.

Unlike the structural integrity of canvas or the density of sculpture, the lightness of works on paper allows them to lie flush to the walls of the surrounds, as if merely suspended. Together, these 500 (im)prints by Nixon document his practice like dots on a timeline – the beauty of printmaking encapsulated in the way that individual artworks can be made only minutes apart.

While the more intricate handmade woodcuts, etchings and stencils require more planning, Nixon’s potato prints resemble bursts of spontaneity and kiddy fun. His choice of material was determined by when and wherever creativity struck, contributing to his fecundity that positioned the artist as one who didn’t bother with the boundaries between art and life. The same goes for his commercial versus artistic pursuits, where Nixon often flittered back and forth between the two. Such was the case with using the colour orange, which became a signature for Nixon in both his commercially produced posters and his experimental pieces.

John Nixon – Four Decades, Five Hundred Prints is located in two separate spaces at the Geelong Gallery, each filled to the brim with his works, from the walls to the timber displays. But the result is contemplative, rather than chaotic, with thoughtful pairings and the aura of an artist’s studio.

Even if at first glance viewers may find repetitive shapes and a minimalist visual language, no two works are the same. Take the circle, for example. A 2004 print depicts the shape in silver, a decent size but slightly off-centre, its surface filled with sophisticated marks that shift with the light. Another from 1988-2020, blue and looming against its black background, shows rustic wood-like grains, evoking the atmosphere of a folktale. Elsewhere in Untitled (2016), orange circles gather like persimmons fighting for centre stage in a fruit bowl.

Read: Exhibition review: John Meade: It’s Personal!, McClelland Gallery

Not much is offered in terms of exhibition didactics other than the reach and methods of Nixon’s practice, but this is perhaps for the better, as viewers are encouraged to consider the abstract pieces with curiosity and imagination.

John Nixon – Four Decades, Five Hundred Prints is on view at Geelong Gallery until 11 March; free entry.

Celina Lei is an arts writer and editor at ArtsHub. She acquired her M.A in Art, Law and Business in New York with a B.A. in Art History and Philosophy from the University of Melbourne. She has previously worked across global art hubs in Beijing, Hong Kong and New York in both the commercial art sector and art criticism. Most recently she took part in drafting NAVA’s revised Code of Practice - Art Fairs. Celina is based in Naarm/Melbourne.